Critical Code Studies

Critical code studies is here, and I think it’s asking all the right questions:

Do Digital Humanities scholars need to know how to code? … While that question raises anxieties in many humanities scholars, it is not an overstatement to argue that computer source code presents a sign system, a discourse environment, that holds tremendous influence over our daily lives — and that for the humanities not to be able to address it, not to be able to use their methodologies to critique this cultural milieu, is the equivalent to unplugging from the Internet permanently or, as has been tweeted, to live in the Roman Empire without knowing how to speak Latin. While perhaps not every DH practitioner need code or know how to code, if we cannot collaborate with our colleagues in computer science to apply our methodologies to the study of source code (and hardware and software), we will be confined to cultural critique of the surface effects of a digital culture which functions within in a black box. (From the front page for HASTAC‘s new Critical Code Studies forum.)

As I continue to develop the analytical and narrative framework of the book I am writing on creativity in fabrication shops in south Louisiana — testing it against what I can actually write — I am also thinking about the next project. For a time now, I have been thinking that writing an ethnography of a coding project would be interesting. Unlike, Scott Rosenberg’s fine Dreaming in Code, however, I knew I wanted my book to include within its purview an actual discussion of the code involved. That is, I think coders have two kinds of conversations: those about code and those in code. So far, I think most documentation has focused only on the former without really revealing how the two discursive streams interact. While I dabbled in Ruby, particularly in Ruby on Rails, I was part of the Radiant CMS mailing list, and I thought I would work with them, but now I am not sure what my subject might be. I am, however, looking forward to this work.

Speaking of alternate domains of critical study, however, I would like to note that critical code studies joins critical legal studies, but there is still not, so far as I am aware, anything like critical business studies. I presented a paper or two on the subject at a few meetings of the American Folklore Society, and I remember having some interesting discussions with Michael Owen Jones about it. I have not pursued it, but I do wonder if others have or are interested in doing so. Certainly the business literature community produces plenty of material which begs for a closer examination. (I’m afraid the sheer glut of it was what overwhelmed my own thinking about it.)